Political insider Michael Yabsley has a simple approach to funding elections: “If 2% of the Australian population gave an average of $200 then that would be $80 million. Capping donations and allowing only enrolled voters to make them would result in adequate funding for elections,” he said. “It’s a lamington stall-led funding approach.”
Yabsley, a former Liberal Party state and federal treasurer, knows a lot about politics and money. Last night he said he felt “queasy about the connection between the money and the way government operated. In politics, perception is everything and it could be cleaner.”
Political donations have become a contentious issue in the wake of recent Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings, which revealed that Liberal Party candidates had accepted donations from property developers, who are banned donors, ahead of the 2011 state election. Ten Liberal MPs resigned in the wake of the ICAC hearings, which also claimed the scalp of the then-NSW premier Barry O’Farrell.
A Melbourne-based think tank, the John Cain Foundation, has convened a report on the topic “Come Clean! Stopping the Arms Race in Political Donations”, launching a campaign for funding reform at NSW Parliament House last night.
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One of the foundation’s directors, former Labor MP Maxine McKew, said she was personally in favour of real-time disclosure. When she was mounting her successful campaign in the electorate of Bennelong in 2007, knowing what John Howard was spending would have been very useful, she said.
A bipartisan panel discussed the report at last night’s launch, including former NSW premier Nick Greiner, current NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley, economist Ross Garnaut and report author Professor Colleen Lewis, expertly wrangled by Fairfax journalist Laura Tingle.
Greiner said that election funding concerns were a “global problem but we are not at the worst end, but this is not an excuse for not doing anything. We have a relatively mild case of the disease, which is present in most democracies.”
The issue has developed a “tipping point”; if the reformers can get significant bipartisan cross-community support, “you have a good chance of getting somewhere,” he said.
One of the biggest problems is that each state and territory has different rules about funding and disclosure.
Foley said last night that while uniform national electoral finance laws were the most desirable outcome, the states could change their laws in the interim: “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. The states can take action on this.”
Last year he introduced proposed changes, including details of a donation to state Labor campaigns, plus the source of the donation and the amount, to be publicly available online within seven days of receipt. This would be reported continually, not just during an election period.
“The parties can self-regulate,” he said. “I took a punt that the NSW voters might think it a refreshing change for the NSW ALP to be open in its approach to this matter. It’s self-interest and it’s the right policy that we might want to be seen to clean up our act.”
Former federal ALP member Daryl Melham said that the current national disclosure level of $13,000 was too high; it should be $200. He said that his first election campaign in 1990 cost about $20,000 and was paid for from contributions from family and friends. But the last campaign in 2013 (which he lost) cost almost $360,000 and had no head office funding.
Melham has been an active campaigner on the issue of funding reform, speaking out against the Howard government’s 2006 changes, which lifted the disclosure level from $1500 to $10,000. That year he was quoted as saying, “We’re going to have the best politicians money can buy, but we won’t see [how much].”
Yabsley said that while we have a “relatively pristine democracy [it] can be cleaner and more pristine.”
His proposed solution was to legislate so that only an individual on an electoral roll can make a donation, capped at $500. Entities such as unions, companies and associations would be banned from making donations, he added.
“We have in the palm of our hands an opportunity to take the taint out of the system and do something to give extra reinforcement to our democratic values by demoralising the fundraising process,” he said.
Also in the audience was NSW upper house Liberal member Peter Phelps, who introduced himself as an “electoral reform fetishist”. He was an adviser on the Liberal Party’s 2007 campaign for the seat of Eden-Monaro, which he said cost more than $300,000.
“Inside the political parties there’s a will to change [election funding], but no one wants to make the first move,” he said.
Professor Colleen Lewis exhorted us to raise the issue with our local election candidates during the current campaign.
“We need a bold giant step, the power sits in this room, we have votes and the politicians want our votes,” she said.
Luckily, I will have a golden opportunity to do that next week. Thanks to living in the inner-west Alsace-Lorraine, with its shifting allegiances to the Greens and the ALP, my vote has become hot property. Due to the recent distribution, my suburb has lost local member Tanya Plibersek and gained Anthony Albanese — next Tuesday she’s taking us all to the local pub to say goodbye. I’m looking forward to a good debate on politics and money. Let’s hope that no one gives her another rat.